The county’s monthly dance was largely not to Stiles’s interests, but there was not nearly enough to do in the country to turn up his nose at it either. Scott was a social creature, keen to interact with a large portion of the assembly whenever given the chance, and if Stiles did not at least show up for a portion of the socializing before settling into a more familiar corner, he would have to face Scott’s best puppy dog eyes. No one wanted to deal with Scott’s puppy dog eyes.
Stiles arrived at the Assembly Room by himself, as was his wont. Scott was continually late, often at the behest of Doctor Deaton, and Stiles’s father disliked such social events, frequently excusing himself in the name of work even when there was little that required his attention. As a respectable older man of decent prospect and unattached affections, his presence at such social events caused perhaps too much of a stir for both Stiles and himself. Many a widow had attempted to set her sights upon him, and a few mamas were even so bold as to offer forth their daughters -- often the same age as Stiles! Stiles could hardly blame his father for retiring to his study whenever possible under these conditions. Certainly Stiles had wished to do so when such an event had occurred.
The walk from the Stilinski House to the county assembly was a meandering one, and Stiles arrived only a little later than half past seven o’clock, just after the first crush had settled inside. The dance seemed rather well-attended for being neither one of the last before the Season began and everyone went to Town, nor one of the first after the Season had ended and everyone retired to the Country with their gossip. The weather had been fair, which was of course more likely to bring attendants than dissuade them. Stiles could at least count on Lydia to be inside; the Martins and Whittemores generally arrived promptly to hold court, as did their hangers-on.
Stiles had not expected the quiet which started at the door and spread quickly throughout the room after he had entered. It was not entirely silent, of course - there were hushed murmurs, whispers hidden behind the rustle of fans, the occasional stifled laugh. Stiles felt the back of his neck grow hot, and knew with a bone deep certainty that such whispers were about him.
It seemed like a bad dream, at first - surely this was too over the top to be real, surely not everyone would shun him. Yet when he searched for a welcoming face - any welcoming face, any at all, surely this was no time to be particular - he found none. Eyes darted away from his like startled birds. Back after back was turned, cold shoulder given after cold shoulder, and Stiles was suddenly, dreadfully certain that any attempts at conversation would be completely rebuffed.
The nail in the coffin was Lydia’s pale face on the other side of the ballroom, her mother standing beside her, as still and foreboding as a gargoyle. Lydia met his gaze, at least, but the look in her eyes was sorrowful. She could not talk to him. She would not. Stiles could hardly blame her. It had been one thing to weather the social storm; it was another to ask her to cast her lot in with his and sink as well. Lydia was a celebrated Beauty; she could not throw away her prospects, and Stiles would not ask her to.
It was a good thing Scott was not here, Stiles thought suddenly. What little social capital Scott had, he would certainly have thrown away. Well. Stiles must avoid Lydia, and Scott as well, if he were to arrive. Perhaps Stiles should leave entirely. But to retreat would be to admit the rumors were true, wouldn’t it? To leave now would be the same as admitting to everything. Yet how could he stay when no one would meet his gaze?
In the midst of these thoughts, a voice rang out over the hushed assembly:
Stiles stared, dumbfounded, as Talia Hale strode across the ballroom towards him. She was a striking, dark-haired woman, remarkably tall, with a reputation around the county as a sportswoman and accomplished rider. He had spoken to her at some point or another, certainly - the county was not overly large, and the Hales were fixtures nearly year round, but Talia did not deign to attend many social events, and spent little time with acquaintances outside her own family. The crowd parted around her as though she would scald them to the touch. That she was here, tonight - that she would talk to him now, of all times! -- Stiles did not believe in divine intervention, but he would take it.
“Your Grace!” His nerves were so rattled he could not keep all of the surprise from his voice, and his bow was closer to a clumsy bob.
“My dear Viscount,” Talia continued, as warmly as he had ever heard her refer to anyone. “I wondered if you would attend tonight! It would have been a shame to miss you.”
“Mr. McCall would not let me escape so easily,” Stiles said. “Though I believe he will be arriving late himself, as usual.”
To his further shock, Talia looped her arm through his - so smoothly Stiles would have thought he had offered it himself, and he found himself gently steered to the largest cluster of guests in the room.
“He often assists Doctor Deaton, I have heard? Surely emergencies happen.”
“Unfortunately it is as likely to be a lost cravat as a minor surgery,” Stiles admitted. “Mr. McCall might forget his head were it not attached to his shoulders.”
“Ah! My youngest daughter is similarly afflicted, and was once so engrossed in a book she set fire to her own dress hem.” Stiles’s laughter was perhaps more of a snort than was appropriate, but the Duchess continued with ease. “I have heard that poachers were caught in the woods last week, killing out of season. Is such a thing true?”
“No poachers were caught,” Stiles managed. “Indeed, my father is unsure poachers are at fault, for the animals seemed to have been mauled rather strangely. One of his men thought wolves to be the likely cause, though of course wolves have not been in Beacon County for centuries.”
“How exciting! How ghoulish! Lady Sheffield,” Talia said, turning toward the nearest warm body of the group, all of whom had been eavesdropping quite intently. “Have you heard such stories, Lady Sheffield? I thought the nearest wolves to be found in the Yorkshire wolds!”
Stiles could see visibly Lady Sheffield hesitate. To snub Stiles was nothing. To snub him even before these rumors would have carried little consequence, causing ripples only amongst his friends. But one did not snub a Hale, and certainly one did not snub Talia Hale, the Duchess of Vulpina, matriarch of the richest family in Beacon County, without severe social consequence.
With Her Grace’s arm looped through his, Stiles suddenly felt as though he could rule the world.
“I am not a student of the natural sciences myself,” the Lady demurred, but the damage has been done - although in Stiles’s case, perhaps more a blessing conferred.
“Nor of geography, as I recall!” Talia continued, so blithe that Stiles was uncertain it was meant as a jab.
Lord Sheffield, much less concerned with the nuance of social politics than his wife, and much more fond of hunting, began to ask Stiles about what else he had heard of his father’s inquiries - was he certain it was not a bear? A polecat? What sort of animals had been killed? - and within a few moments the conversation around them began to swell once more.
Was it so easy? Stiles wondered. Was the Duchess so masterful? Some members of the crowd were undoubtedly starting to reassure themselves that the rumors were simply not true. To others, the Duchess’s show of friendship, however unusual, had at least given them pause in cutting Stiles out entirely. Certainly it was better to be polite for now , Stiles imagined them whispering amongst themselves, for slighting a friend of a Duchess would not help one’s social life!
“How warm it is tonight!” Talia declared once Lord Sheffield had paused for breath. “And how parched I am! Lord Roscoe, would you be so kind?”
Once again, Stiles found Talia’s arm looped through his, and once again, she had decisively steered him in the direction of her choosing. He suddenly realized that Talia and Lydia could never meet, for certainly the two together would be unstoppable, and that the resemblance in manner between Peter and Talia was rather uncanny. What a family, these Hales!
A few moments later, punch in hand, Talia looked at Stiles from toe to the tip of his head - critically, and not particularly kindly.
“Peter is fond of you,” she said bluntly, in a steady whisper that somehow had all the power of a shout. “I confess I do not understand it, but since he seems determined to marry you, I will do my best to save your tattered reputation beyond all repair.”
Stiles’s face burned with sudden embarrassment. He knew what she was doing, of course, but to put it so plainly!
“It - it is not true, whatever they say,” he offered, and raised his chin. “I doubt that you will believe me, for no one here seems to, but I have done nothing wrong. Behaved foolishly, perhaps, thinking that rumors would not start, but there is no truth to whatever salacious gossip is making the rounds.”
She stared at him for a long moment, again looking him over with her piercing stare, before slowly nodding her head.
“As it happens, I do believe you. Though if you would desist in starting another such damaging rumor until you are wed, I would find myself greatly appreciative.” Her arm tucked firmly around his as she finished her punch. “Now, into whose bosom do you wish to be deposited? I must go harangue my eldest.”
“Miss Lydia Martin, please,” Stiles said, nearly swooning with an unexpected wave of relief.
Lydia and Stiles conversed in tones of rather fervid politeness for nearly half an hour before Peter appeared at Stiles’s elbow.
“Lord Roscoe.” Peter gave a courtly nod. “Miss Martin.”
“Lord Letharia.” Lydia’s tone was as cautious as in their last encounter, though perhaps a touch less frosty. She and Stiles had not yet had occasion to discuss the evening’s events privately - Mrs. Martin’s hawkish gaze precluded such things, as did the crowded nature of such an assembly - but she had surely arrived at the same conclusion as he had: Peter had, in some measure or another, organized Stiles’s salvation.
“If you would be so kind,” Peter asked, hand outstretched. “I believe the first dance is a waltz?”
The beginning steps of their dance were silent. Their pairing had not gone unnoticed, particularly in the wake of Stiles’s earlier brush with scandal and Talia’s defense of him. Such a thing had set more tongues wagging than a second waltz would, Stiles thought bitterly. The number of eyes following them around the room was unusually high, and Stiles could feel a flush rising on the back of his neck he hoped could be written off to the warm temperature.
Surely he should say something. Surely it would look strange to not say anything . And dancing did afford some measure of privacy in conversation, as long as one kept one’s voice down, and was not placed next to someone with particularly keen ears.
“Thank you,” Stiles finally said, though the words stuck slightly in his throat. Peter inclined his head, having decency enough to forgo pretending he didn’t know what Stiles was so thankful for. “Do you - do you think it is enough?” Talia had wielded her position with all the subtlety of a hammer, crushing the fledgling rumors, but what were the chances others would soon sprout?
Peter lifted his chin, as if to shrug. “The rumors will not fully die, but they will only be whispered about in corners. Of course for some the damage has been done, for there are always those with a smaller capacity for scandal, but you may receive more invitations from those who find it titillating in return.” He paused. “Not that you may wish to accept such invitations.”
“I should think not,” Stiles muttered. “And yet -- thank you.”
“There is no need to thank me. We have a bargain, do we not?”
The mention of such a thing turned Stiles’s stomach a little, but it could not be avoided. That had become very clear.
“We do,” Stiles agreed. “And I will thank you for it, and your… concession.”
Peter’s dancing eyes at once seemed to quieten. “Though conspirators, I know we are still barely more than acquaintances. You could not possibly know I consider my family to be the most important part of my life. Once we are wed, your father will be a part of my family as well, and even now I would not deny so simple a request as to spare your father pain. I will do everything in my power to take care of him as if he were my own.”
Stiles ducked his head, momentarily startled into a silence of his own.
“Don’t say thank you again,” Peter said suddenly, and Stiles couldn’t stop a snort of laughter.
“Fine,” he said. “Shall we talk about the weather? The punch?”
“Well, not that we have exhausted all possible conversation, I suppose we must suffer in silence.”
“You do not seem the type,” Peter said wryly, and Stiles could not help smiling back a little himself.
“Later?” was all Peter said when the dance had ended. Stiles nodded, and Peter squeezed Stiles’s hand once before relinquishing it, quick as the bat of an eye.
What an odd situation he had found himself in, Stiles mused, with a rather odd man. But considering the disaster that had almost occurred, and the swift and miraculous rescue, he found himself not minding quite so much. It was certainly preferable to the unmitigated disaster that would have been his marriage prospects after such a scandal!
Stiles worked his way towards where Lydia had last been standing, exchanging genial nods and bows with acquaintances - how different from when he had entered the dance! - to find Scott was now standing alongside Lydia, with Miss Argent in between them.
Lydia was the first to spot him, and the first to speak:
“Lord Letharia?” she asked archly, eyebrow raised. “Really.”
Scott was nearly fuming, a flush high on both cheeks, and a glint in his eyes that did not bode well for Stiles. Not at all . “Yes, Stiles. Lord Letharia? Really ?”
Stiles shrugged, and smiled the particular smile he had seen other young men and women use time and time again - a small, satisfied smirk that implied he had a secret. It was partly true, of course, and they could not talk freely of it here, not in front of Miss Argent, however nice she might have seemed.
“I am as baffled as anyone,” Stiles said. “It was quite a surprise to be asked to dance before, much less again.”
“Is he not sweet on you?” Miss Argent asked. Her English was flawless, Stiles had noted, though she had a tendency to often speak in questions. “I thought for certain you had an understanding!”
Stiles blushed, rather traitorously, as both Lydia and Scott looked on in alarm.
“It is actually… rather new,” Stiles explained. “The Hales do not socialize as often as many other families in the county, and as Lord Letharia is of course a trifle older, we do not have much history --”
“Forgive me,” Miss Argent said, still smiling, and waving her fan. “Of course I do not know much of the neighborhood as of yet. You must explain everything to me!” Her last statement was directed towards Scott rather than Stiles, and accompanied by a particularly pearly smile.
Scott smiled in a way that gave Stiles indigestion almost instantly, and he and Lydia shared a look.
“Miss Martin, would you care to dance?” Stiles asked, and he had scarcely put out his hand before Lydia grabbed it.
By the last set of the dance, Lydia was spying on Whittemore over Stiles’s shoulder, which he bore with his usual grace:
“Stop casting sheep’s eyes,” he hissed. “You look like a pug!”
Lydia frowned and stomped, quickly, on one of his feet. It was done so cleverly that not only did Stiles nearly trip, but she had swung neatly away from it as it happened, turning back just as he found his footing.
“I could never ,” she said sweetly, and Stiles would not help the giggling snort that escaped him.
He held her hand in his perhaps a shade too long, once the dance had ended. There was a time - a solid decade, truly, if Stiles was being honest - when he had thought Lydia might one day be his wife. He knew, now, that she had set her eyes on Whittemore for some unknown and godforsaken reason, and that they would not truly have suited anyway. But he did still adore her.
Whittemore barely greeted Stiles before pulling Lydia back onto the dance floor -as Lydia had planned, assuredly- and Peter made another of his uncannily well-timed appearances, no doubt intending to collect his second dance.
“The quadrille lasted for a set too long, I fear,” Stiles said, for he was a little breathless. “The next?”
“Perhaps a turn around the gardens instead?” Peter asked politely, and Stiles quickly acquiesced, for fresh air sounded just the thing. It was also as near to set tongues wagging as a second dance; the main garden path was well lit and in full view of nosy busybodies, but private conversation could be had, and brief assignations, if one was so bold as to make use of a folly or Corinthian arch.
“Your friend does not like me,” Peter said, tucking Stiles’s arm into his own. They were well-matched in height and coloring, and Stiles would imagine they made quite the picture to anyone who might have been watching. “Miss Martin and I are something of… friendly adversaries, I suppose, as all academics are. She rightly questions my sudden interest. But your Mister McCall seems rather intent on trying to drill through my skull with his eyes.”
“He’s worried. He is like a brother to me, you know, and I -- I have not explained everything to him, and I do not think I shall, in all honesty. He feels guilty enough already.”
“You were out with him, then, that night.”
Stiles felt the denial tangle in his throat. Peter knew the story, or enough of it - he knew the rumors and knew they were not true, though he could not know the truth, of course --
“Forgive me,” Peter continued swiftly. “We won’t speak of such things.”
“Our bargain doesn’t include your secrets.” Peter patted Stiles’s arm. “At present, we are merely stirring up gossip. Quite well, if the expression on Mrs. Aberford’s face is any indication. She looks as if she is both sucking a lemon, and quite eager to share why.”
The description was so exacting that Stiles was required to smother his laughter in the small space where their shoulders brushed.
Both Scott and Lydia were so distracted by their sweethearts for the remainder of the night that Stiles was able to return home without further incident or discussion, though he knew he would likely have to face both his friends within the next day or two. He had caught Talia’s lofty, if perhaps slightly approving glance on his way out the door last night as well, and wondered that his life had come to this.
At breakfast, the house butler, Codsworth, who was so old he had been in service to the family before Stiles’s own father had been born, announced that a bouquet had been delivered and was sitting in the front hall.
Stiles choked on his ham.
“A bouquet?” John asked, before Stiles could recover. “Who from?”
“From Lord Lotharia, My Lord.”
John’s eyebrows rose. “Lord Lotharia?”
“We danced together last night,” Stiles admitted. “Twice, I mean. I -” He looked at his partially eaten plate, and felt the sudden urge to flee from his father’s incoming questions. “If you’ll excuse me--”
He ran for the front hall, his father’s curious gaze like a weight at his back.
Stiles had never been particularly interested in the language of flowers - if the occasion had ever arisen to send a bouquet to some young man or lady, he imagined he could have pulled it together - but even he could see this was no regular bouquet. There were no roses, or chrysanthemums, or carnations, not even a tulip or gardenia. Nothing that spoke so broadly of love or affection.
Trust Peter to make him work .
There was a book on the language of flowers in the library, of course, but the book itself was slow going, making finding both the flower itself and the accompanying color rather tedious.
“Bittersweet,” Stiles whispered to himself. “Forsythia, and white heather. And maidenhair ferns.” There were large fronds of them around the outside of the bouquet, as if holding the edges all together.
Truth, and anticipation, and protection, and a secret bond.
Stiles huffed. Perhaps this marriage was not the worst thing to happen to him, after all.